Scientists sort through plant fossils found at Foulden Maar. Photo: Daphne Lee CC BY 4.0

A nervous wait for scientists worried about the fate of Foulden Maar’s fossils could be over

A site described as Dunedin’s Pompeii appears to be safe from the risk of mining after the Dunedin City Council announces its desire to buy it. 

Foulden Maar contains 23 million-year-old fossils as well as a scientifically important record of climate data. At one stage the contents of the site, which is close to Middlemarch, were destined to be ground up into pig food and marketed overseas under the trademarked name Black Pearl.

It was estimated the mine would have created employment for 100 local workers. 

After an outcry from the scientific community and the public, the company planning to mine the maar went into receivership.

Yesterday, the Dunedin City Council announced its plans to purchase the 42 hectares of land belonging to Plaman Resources under the Public Works Act.

“We know that the maar is considered by scientists to contain New Zealand’s richest trove of fossils, including plants, insects, spiders, fish and pollen,” said Mayor Aaron Hawkins. 

“For these reasons, it’s important we act to preserve this very special place and prevent any mining taking place.”

Good faith negotiations will take place between the liquidator and the council. If an agreement is not reached, a compulsory purchase could take place at a price determined by the Land Valuation Tribunal. The council has one year to decide if it will seek a compulsory purchase.

Hawkins said this is the start of a process. 

“We’re also working with other public bodies and institutions and funding bodies and probably, ultimately our community on, should we buy it, where ultimately that money might come from.”

In the meantime, other buyers could purchase the land but in choosing to do so would know there’s a risk it could be compulsorily purchased under the Public Works Act.  

The capital valuation of the land is $365,000. According to the Overseas Investment Office, Plaman Resources bought the land in 2014 for around $650,000.

Plaman Resources owes creditors over $14 million.

Hawkins said plans haven’t been made for how the land would be used if it is purchased by the council.

University of Otago’s Dr Nic Rawlence is ecstatic at the news. 

“By buying it they’re going to preserve it in perpetuity for scientific research. This could allow scientists to start developing long-term research programmes.”

The maar has always been privately-owned and researchers had to ask the landowners for access. Public ownership would provide certainty of access. One option would be for the land to be made a scientific reserve. 

“If it becomes a scientific reserve it will get a lot more publicity for researchers and make getting funding easier. You’ve got a well-known fossil site. You can use it to answer very big picture, blue sky questions.”

Public support had been pivotal, he said.

“It just shows what having the community behind you can do to basically save a site of national and international scientific interest.”

A petition to save Foulden Maar gathered 11,000 signatures. 

For Middlemarch locals Andrea Bosshard and Shane Loader, yesterday’s news came as vindication. The pair were the first to raise alarm bells at the mining proposal.

“When we began it was just Shane and I on our own facing what seemed to be this juggernaut,” said Bosshard, who is Save Foulden Maar Incorporated’s spokesperson.

The pair spent hours researching the proposal and trying to raise awareness of the issues they uncovered. 

“What has been incredibly important for us, and I hoped we learnt as a country, is that we must ask the questions and not fall over at the promises of economic growth that always accompany these sorts of proposals.”

Read more:

Future still uncertain for Foulden Maar’s fossils

Fossil mining company broke with millions in the bank

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No mention of fossils in OIO application

Hope as fossil site claims second mining company scalp

Foulden Maar fight rumbles on

Financial offers dangled for fossil mine support

Scientists reject fossil land swap

Southern discomfort at fossil mining plans

Answers from the fossil miner

Unjustifiable vandalism and grand promises

Fossil-dirt nutrition claims under doubt

Dunedin Mayor demands facts from fossil-mining company

Who is the fossil mining company?

Opposition grows to fossil mining project

Dunedin’s ‘Pompeii’ to be mined to make pig food

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